The Bully Gets a Bullet in His Brain
July 1, 1934
Jefferson & Jefferson County, Wisconsin
Earl Gentry was dead. It looked like he had been “taken for a ride” and polished off with typical gangland efficiency.
Not a soul mourned the passing of this self-styled gangster with the itching trigger finger, brass knuckles and concealed stiletto. He had won the sobriquet of “Jefferson County’s [Wisconsin] Public Enemy No. 1” and he gloried in his role of all-around tough guy. He was the same Earl Gentry who had gained nation-wide notoriety in 1925 in connection with the murder of pretty Madge Oberholtzer. Gentry had been the bodyguard and adviser to D. C. Stephenson, grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, and had been charged with the murder together with his chief.
The “Sunshine Lady”
Despite the fact that Gentry had admitted witnessing the fatal attack, he managed to wriggle through a loophole of the law and escape without a penalty. Immediately after the trial at Indianapolis, he had come to Wisconsin to board with Mrs. Carrie GIII, a wealthy widow known to everyone for miles around Jefferson as the “Sunshine Lady,” because of her ready smile and open purse for the needy. She was a devout churchwoman and had pledged herself to a career of aiding the unfortunates in her community.
Carrie Gill believed that under the thick skin of this heavy drinking gangster bent the heart of a misunderstood man. She furnished the cash bail of $6,000 during the trial and undertook to reform Gentry, despite the objections of her friends. But Gentry was incorrigible. He immediately launched a reign terror that had the entire community cringing. Once he became angered at a drinking companion’s remarks and stabbed him to death.
None of the witnesses had courage enough to testify against him and Gentry went free. Time and again he was hauled into court on hauled into court on charges, but witnesses simply would, not take the stand against him and his victims refused to prosecute for fear of more terrible reprisals.
So the community of Jefferson heaved a collective sigh of relief when Gentry was found murdered on the morning of July 1, 1934. Charles Bartel discovered the murder. He had noticed a car parked in the center of the city park along the Rock River early in the morning as he passed with his fishing tackle. It was still there that afternoon, so curiosity prompted him to peer into the window of the car. What he saw prompted him to give a hoarse cry that snapped the town out of its Sunday afternoon lethargy.
Blood stained towels and a rug covered a huddled form in the rear of the car. The interior of the car was smeared with dark stains of dried blood. In a few minutes Sheriff Joseph T. Lange and Dist. Atty. Harold M. Dakin appeared on the scene to investigate this “gangland” shooting.
After an examination, the sheriff said, “Typical gangsters wouldn’t take the trouble of covering their victim with a rug. This looks to me like the attempt of an amateur to create the impression of a gangster slaying.”
Dakin had been examining the floor around the body. “I agree with you,” he said. “Had Gentry been shot in the car, the cushions and floor rug would have been soaked with blood. You will notice, however, that they are only stained. Gentry must have been slain elsewhere and then dumped into his own car and driven here.”
Glad He’s Dead
Why had the slayers gone to the added risk of removing the body from the scene of the crime? There was only one answer—the crime must have occurred in a spot where it would lead to suspicion of the actual perpetrators.
Although the officials did not completely dismiss the gangster theory, they decided to set it aside temporarily. The body was removed to the morgue, where Dr. J.H. Mathews, University of Wisconsin criminologist, was requested to aid in performing the autopsy. Meanwhile, Lange and Dakin drove to the Gill home in the hope of finding a clue in Gentry’s effects.
The officers rang the bell a number of times and were about to force open the door when they saw Mrs. Gill coming up the walk. She smiled good naturedly and told the men that she was just returning from her brother’s farm, where she had spent the night and Sunday. She said she left her home about 9 p. m. Saturday.
“Was Earl Gentry at home when you left?” asked Lange.
“No, he left about a half hour before, saying he was going uptown.”
Did you hear that he was found murdered in his car a little while ago?”
‘The color seeped from Mrs. Gill’s face. She clutched the side of the porch for support. Then, slowly, she regained her composure and said quietly:
“I’m glad he’s dead.”
Lange and Dakin drew back, astonished. Carrie Gill, the lone defender of the hated Earl Gentry, was glad that he was dead. Why?
They attempted to question Mrs. Gill, but she was too upset to answer more questions. She led the officials to Gentry’s room and sank into a chair. Lange and Dakin examined the room thoroughly, taking with them all the letters and papers they could find. Mrs. Gill pointed out that Gentry’s revolver was missing from its usual place in the bureau drawer. In his room on a table lay an unopened letter, postmarked Evansville, Indiana. Tearing it open, Lange discovered that it was from Earl Kinke, another former bodyguard of Stephenson who had stood trial with the klansman and Gentry in the Oberholtzer murder. Kinke expressed relief that Gentry had reached Jefferson County. “I was afraid that they would get you sure before you got out of Indiana,” he wrote.
“Well, what do you think of the gangster theory now?” asked the district attorney.
“It’s beginning to look mighty good,” Lange replied. “I’m only glad that nobody in this town murdered Henry. I’d hate to see anyone go to jail for killing a rat like that.”
Stains in the Kitchen
Mrs. Gill, who had meanwhile gone downstairs, suddenly called excitedly to the officers. They hurried down to the kitchen and found Mrs. Gill pointing to dried streaks on the floor and walls.
“These stains weren’t here when I left,” she said.
The streaks were blood stains on the floor and walls. A hasty attempt at wiping them away had been made “And those whisky bottles,” cried Mrs. GIII, pointing to two bottles in corner, “they weren’t there when I left last night”
Sheriff Lange carefully wrapped the bottles in a clean cloth and set them aside for examination by a fingerprint expert. He scraped off what blood spots he could and collected the residue in an envelope. Dr. Mathews would try to determine whether or not it was the blood of the murdered man.
At headquarters only one set of fingerprints was found on the whiskey bottles. They were not the prints of either Carrie Gill or Earl Gentry.
“These prints are undoubtedly those of the slayer,” said District Attorney Dakin. “And there was probably only one slayer because there were no glasses in the house to show that drinks had been poured for anyone else. The killer must have nerved himself for the job by draining both bottles as he waited in the dark. Had one of the bottles been emptied before he entered the house he would have tossed it away.”
Checked Mr. Gill’s Story
The next step was to check the movements of the slain man on the night of the murder. Sheriff Lange soon learned that Gentry had gone directly from the Gill home to a tavern, purchased a package of cigarettes and two shots of whisky, and drove off toward Fort Atkinson. The officers headed for Fort Atkinson. On the way, they stopped at the Ferdinand Probst farm to check Mrs. Gill’s story that she spent Saturday night and Sunday with her brother. Since he had no telephone, Mrs. Gill could not have reached him before the authorities.
Probst corroborated the story of his sister in every detail and he added his voice to the chorus of approvals of Gentry’s depth. Even his nephew, Donald Probst, son of Albert Probst of Fort Atkinson, told the sheriff he was glad Gentry was dead.
“What did you have against Gentry?” risked the sheriff.
“I didn’t like to have him going with my sister,” flashed the 17 year-old youth. “I warned her about him several times, but she wouldn’t listen to me. So I went to Aunt Carrie and pleaded with her to break it up before it went too far.”
He Had Not Been Drinking
“As soon as Aunt Carrie spoke to him about it, he came over to my house and gave me a terrific beating. I swore out an assault and battery charge against him and he was arrested. But when my father paid Gentry’s fine and got him out of jail, I left home and went to live with my uncle Ferdinand.”
There were now three persons who were particularly glad of Gentry’s death Carrie Gill, Ferdinand Probst and Albert Probst. Yet none of their fingerprints appeared on the whisky bottles allegedly handled by the slayer.
At the Albert Probst home in Fort Atkinson, pretty Josephine Probst recovered from her first shock of the news of the death of Gentry and gave a clear account of Gentry’s movements the night before.
“Earl called for me early Saturday evening and took mother and me for a ride,” she said. “We dropped mother off at a church ice cream social and drove around for two hours alone. Then we picked up mother again and drove home and had lunch. Earl left at 12:15 a.m. He had not been drinking.”
His Blood on Walls
By this time Dr. Mathews had completed the autopsy. He reported that Gentry had died from a bullet wound in his brain from a .38 caliber pistol.
There was a slight trace of alcohol in his stomach but not a sufficient amount to cause intoxication. The bloodstains on the kitchen floor were of the same blood group as Gentry’s blood.
Sheriff Lange was now completely convinced that Gentry had been slain in the Gill kitchen by the mysterious stranger who left his prints on the wine bottle and who used Gentry’s gun to commit the deed. But who was he? Certainly not any persons whom the sheriff had questioned so far, for all had unbeatable alibis.
Sheriff Lange’s theory that Earl Gentry was slain by a man who steeled himself for the job by consuming two bottles of whisky and leaving his fingerprints on the bottles was all but shattered when Henry Hafermann, night watchman at a milk condensery near the Gill home, came forward with this information:
“About 1 o’clock Sunday morning I saw two men drive to the Gill home and go inside. Half an hour later I saw the same car, containing two men, park at the spot where the murder car was found.”
According to Hafermann’s statement, Gentry was slain by two men who went directly to the Gill home, murdered Gentry, and then removed the body. Who, then, was the mysterious stranger who had spent several hours in the Gill kitchen downing two pints of whisky? The evidence at hand didn’t make sense. In the hope of finding further evidence they might have overlooked, Sheriff Lange and Dist. Atty. Harold Dakin returned to the Gill home and searched every inch of the house.
Was “Sunshine Lady” in it?
Under some dusty newspapers on closet shelf in Gentry’s room the officers found a long envelope. It contained a will made by Gentry and dated March 16, 1931, leaving all his property to Mrs. Gill.
What made the officers gape with astonishment, however, was a large cross drawn across the face of the will with pen and ink and the startling notation: “Nulled and void by Earl B. Gentry Nov. 28, 1933, when I was threatened to be killed by Carrie Gill. She said she would have done it on the highway.”
Carrie Gill had admitted she was glad that Gentry was dead. Was it possible that she had a hand in his murder? The sheriff couldn’t believe it. The “Sunshine Lady” was too gentle a soul, too devout a Christian to be a party to such a misdeed. Was it possible that Earl Gentry knew he was living on borrowed time and that sooner or later his enemies would catch up with him? Thus, in a fit of resentment against Mrs. Gill, could he have written this notation into the will to bring misery into the life of the woman who had sheltered him and defended him before society?
Still, the sheriff could not permit his personal high regard for Mrs. Gill to sway his judgment as a detective. He confronted Mrs. Gill with the will and asked for an explanation.
“I think that Mr. Gentry’s notation that I threatened him is too ridiculous to be considered,” she said. “I am even more puzzled about his motive in making a will when he had nothing to bequeath. Everything he possessed he got from me. So far as I know he was penniless.”
“You Gave Him Money?”
“You gave him money—regularly?” asked the sheriff.
“Yes, I believe I could set him straight. Last March he told me he was going to turn over it new leaf, that he was sure he could get work In Evansville if he only had enough money to get there. He promised that he would never trouble me again if I would give him $400 to make the trip and tide him over until he found work.
“I gave him the money and he left. From the tone of his letters I knew that he had no intention of looking for work and he constantly mentioned a blond school teacher. When he asked for more money I told him to forget about her and find a job.”
The sheriff suddenly leaned forward and patted Mrs. Gill’s hand. “Carrie, why did you continue to give him money? You knew that he was a chronic loafer, an incorrigible good-for-nothing. Why did you do it?”
The tears welled up in her eyes and revealed the bitterness in her heart. Her words came like a pent-up torrent that had suddenly been released.
He Beat Me Often
“I might as well tell you,” she sobbed. “I didn’t give him money willingly. He held me in a grip of fear that prevented me from going to the authorities for help. I was virtually a prisoner and a slave in my own home. He bent me often. Only a week ago ho put a knife to my throat and threatened to cut me to ribbons unless I gave him the insurance money I received when a log cabin I owned burned to the ground. In spite of the way he mistreated me, I want you to know that I would not be a party to his murder.”
Dr. J. L. Daniels of Jefferson verified Mrs. Gill’s statements. “She always appeared in a highly nervous state and her body bore bruises, apparently inflicted in a brutal attack by the hands or feet of some person,” he said.
This new evidence served only to knot the already tangled threads in this baffling mystery. Carrie Gill benefited most by the death of Gentry, yet, the sheriff was positive she did not have a hand in the slaying. Was it possible that someone had murdered Gentry out of sheer pity for Mrs. Gill? And what about the two men who entered the Gill home at about the time of the murder? And the man who had spent several hours in the Gill kitchen consuming whisky and waiting—for what?
In an effort to get a fresh viewpoint on the mystery, Sheriff Lange called in Joseph Kluchesky, head of the bureau of identification of the Milwaukee police department. Kluchesky suggested that Donald and Ferdinand Probst, the nephew and brother of Mrs. Gill be questioned further.
At the Breaking Point
For hours the sheriff and Kluchesky pounded away the stories of the men, but they doggedly asserted their innocence. Their stories held up well under the verbal fire, although both insisted they were glad Gentry was dead.
The machine-gun like questioning continued until the nerves of the men were at the breaking point. Suddenly Kluchesky stood up and said, “‘Well, it looks as if they won’t talk or else they have nothing to say. Might its well turn them loose.”
The officers left the room, presumably to prepare the release papers, while the two suspects leaned back in their chairs, immensely relieved. Kluchesky pressed his ear against the door and heard Ferdinand say, “Well, I guess I’ve got nothing to worry about now.”
What was Ferdinand hiding? Kluchesky and Lange rushed back into the room and went to work on Ferdinand in earnest. When the accusation was made that Mrs. Gill’s alibi had been framed by the three of them and that she was in her home and not at the farm when the murder was committed, he leaped to his feet and screamed:
“That’s a lie! You are trying to frame all of us!”
Lange grabbed Ferdinand by the shoulder ‘”This is your last chance,” he barked. “Unless you tell what you are hiding, we’ll arrest you and Donald and Mrs. Gill for the murder!”
Ferdinand hesitated a moment, licked his lips and looked anxiously at Donald “All right,” he said slowly. “I’ll talk.”
“About 1 a.m. Sunday a fellow who had done some painting for Carrie came to my home and told me he had killed Earl Gentry at my sister’s home and that the body way so heavy he needed help to get rid of it.
“He was driving Gentry’s car and we went back together and drove the car into the garage behind the house. When we entered the house, the body of Earl Gentry was lying on a rug and covered with a rug and some towels.
“We dragged the body into the back seat of the sedan. We drove around the condensery and over the Crawfish River Bridge and he let me out near my house. I went home to bed.
“About 5 a.m. he came to see me, and I told him to beat it out of town. Carrie had taken care of him when he was sick and after nursing him back to health had given him odd jobs to earn a little money when he didn’t haven friend. He thought Carrie was a saint and when he heard that Gentry had abused her, he thought he was doing horn favor by getting rid of him.”
Was Ferdinand Probst telling the truth? It seemed almost unbelievable that he should assist a complete stranger in getting rid of the body. The sheriff believed that his story was a pure fabrication designed to throw the guilt upon a mythical figure.
Painter Called George King
Nevertheless, he decided to check Ferdinand’s story. He soon learned from Mrs. Gill that she had befriended and hired a painter named George King to do some odd jobs for her and that perhaps Ferdinand might be referring to him.
A few hours later a worker at the condensery informed Lange that he had seen George King walking along the railroad tracks toward Fort Atkinson at 6:30 a. m. the day the body was discovered. He had talked with him a few minutes but noticed nothing unusual.
The sheriff told police of Fort Atkinson, Beloit, and Rockford to be on the lookout for the painter. Then he raced to Fort Atkinson and undertook a systematic hunt for George King. He started in the most natural hangouts—taverns.
Several bartenders told the sheriff they knew a man answering King’s description, but he was known to them as Carl Church. From tavern to tavern the sheriff traveled, always a step behind the painter.
Then he noticed a man answering the description of George King loitering in front of the Fort Atkinson county building. Sheriff Lange jumped from his car and approached the man.
“Is your name Carl Church or George King?” he demanded.
“Why?” came the bland reply.
“I’m the Guy”
“We want you for the murder of Earl Gentry.”
“I’m the guy. Let’s go,” said Carl Church.
At headquarters he seemed anxious to get the crime off his conscience. “I did it, and I’m glad I did it,” he half shouted. “And I’d do it again if it were necessary. I kept thinking how he was beating her until I nearly went crazy. Then I decided to put him out of the way for good. I got into the house with one of my keys and drank two bottles of whisky waiting for him to return. Then I shot him and got Ferdinand Probst to help me dispose of the body.”
Several days later, Church pleaded guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Ferdinand was fined $100 and costs.
And Carrie Gill, charitable Carrie who had been maligned by the man she tried to help—went back to her work of brightening the lives of the unfortunates in her community, her faith in mankind as strong as ever.
Source: “Who Murdered Ear Gentry, Man of a Thousand Enemies?” The Milwaukee Journal, The Green Sheet, Two Part Series Published on April 25 & 26, 1938.